Taking a trip to Iceland is like taking a trip to another planet. With the most active and unique geography on Earth, Iceland is spectacular—think black sand beaches backed by neon green hills dotted with delicate white flowers, or strange rock formations teetering on a lava plane striped in red, gold, and black. Iceland’s landscape is diverse, harsh, and stunningly beautiful.
And if you want to be close to that beauty, visit Reykjavik. Use the city as your base for day trips around the island because if you’re in Iceland you can’t miss seeing the wondrous nature around you. And for something special, if you’re in Iceland during the winter, join a midnight tour group on the search for the northern lights. Seeing magical colours billowing and staining the calm, silent night sky is incredible.
But while you’re wrapped up in the beauty of the island, don’t forget about Reykjavik. It’s worth exploring too. A unique thing about Reykjavik is the way Icelanders have harvested their country’s geothermal energy for recreation. There are dozens of outdoor thermal pools around the city, heated with natural geothermal energy—perfect for relaxing. Many hotels also have natural geothermal spas—check out the quirky Reykjavik Hotel Natura. In the evenings, alongside the luxurious spa, hotel guests are invited to put on their PJ’s and listen to Icelandic bedtime stories—on top of that they provide blankets and hot chocolate!
A short walk away from the Reykjavik Hotel Natura is one of Reykjavik’s strangest/most awesome attractions: the Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach. Wait, a beach on the North Atlantic Sea—in Iceland? Yes! A section of the bay fronting Reykjavik is blocked off to form a lagoon and hot geothermal water is pumped into the sea, making the water warm enough for a swim! The beach also has a gigantic hot tub and steam bath. So don’t forget to pack your bathing suit on your trip to Iceland!
And speaking of bathing suits, I’ve left the best for last: The Blue Lagoon. Situated in an old lava field outside of the city, the Blue Lagoon is a giant hot pool filled by the wastewater of a nearby geothermal power plant. The water is rich in minerals and has an otherworldly powder blue colour. Just imagine floating in the heated blue waters, surrounded by black lava mountains and feeling snowflakes hit your face—pure bliss! And throughout the lagoon are bins filled with silica mud you can cover your face and body with. Also, check out their couples packages that include a romantic dinner and in-water massages.
When I think of Marrakech I think of its medina: the heart of the old city, walled in red sandstone baked by the sun, full of chaotic mazes of souks tightly-packed around organically shaped alleyways, offering everything from silver teapots to mounds of fragrant spices. And to add to the experience, Marrakech is on the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, with its snow-capped peaks visible from the city.
Spend an afternoon exploring the old city and purposely get lost among the souks (the traditional marketplaces). But make sure to inquire about Djemaa El-Fna—it’s the main square of the old city and you’ll want to be there in the evening. In the meantime, if bargaining is your thing, take some time to wander the stalls and pick out some souvenirs: hand-made pottery, scarves or even a tagine, and try your luck at haggling.
And even if you don’t get the best price, it doesn’t matter—it’s a fun experience anyways, being in the hustle and bustle of a chaotic North African market. And the experience might come in handy. Perhaps when you’re back from vacation, waiting in line at the grocery store to pay $6.99 for a loaf of gluten-free bread (I know it’s an exorbitant price for a loaf of bread but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do), you can look back at your time in Marrakech and realize you’re now an expert haggler, and maybe you’ll be able to convince the cashier to lower the price…or at least meet you in the middle. That, or you can feel like a fool when you’re met with a blank stare. Either or.
As night falls make your way back to Djemaa El-Fna. By now, row-on-row of food stalls will have been set up under large tents—just follow your nose. Be adventurous and try some wonderfully spiced Moroccan fare: pastilla (like a meat pie), tagine (spicy stew cooked in a clay pot), couscous dishes, and harira (lentil and chickpea soup)—delicious! And be sure to try mint tea—expertly poured from a great height into tiny glasses. After dinner find something sweet, sit down, and people-watch. The square will be filled with musicians, dancers, and crowds of people just looking to enjoy their evening.
Floating in the Mediterranean Sea between Italy, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, Malta is a tiny, stunning country. Its capital Valletta shows the marks of its fascinating history. Sure, there are a lot of all-inclusive type resorts strewn around Valletta, filled with British holidaymakers enjoying the beaches, but Malta has much more to offer. Because of it’s location, the island has seen its share of great powers and empires: ruled by the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish, Knights of St John, French, and British at some point in its history—there is so much to explore culturally and historically in Valletta it’s unbelievable!
A particular must see in Valletta is the St. John’s Co-Cathedral. Built by the Knights of Malta in the 16th Century, this cathedral is considered one of the finest examples of Baroque Architecture in the world. But that’s not its main draw. In the oratory of the cathedral is one of the most impressive works of art in Western painting: Caravaggio’s masterpiece, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. Caravaggio was an Italian painter who was a bit of a hell-raiser. After killing a man in a brawl outside of Rome, Caravaggio fled Italy and ended up in Malta, where the Knights commissioned him to paint an altarpiece—he was even inducted as a knight himself! But, Caravaggio was trouble and soon found himself in jail, but he escaped and was subsequently stripped of his knighthood and forced to flee Malta. Knowing a bit of Caravaggio’s history adds another dimension to his work—especially when you learn this was his only canvas he signed…in the blood spilling from Saint John’s throat. Romantic? Hell no! But it’s a cool story, bro.
So enough with the dark and depressing world of Caravaggio—it’s time to leave the cathedral anyways and explore the beautiful city of Valetta!
Valetta has one of the most stunning skylines on the Mediterranean—white bastions and curtain walls hug the city, enclosing its Baroque towers and cathedrals in a protective barrier—one of the Knights’ legacies on the island. It’s a majestic sight, conjuring images of chivalry and knights in shining armour. When evening approaches, before the sun sets, head down to the water and find a sidewalk café or restaurant with a patio. The city will soon come alive in colour—the white stonework will turn to fiery reds and oranges as it catches the sun’s stretched, setting rays. After the sun has set, and you’ve finished dinner, wander through the narrow streets and admire the illuminated stone facades on the houses until you find the perfect little place for some dessert and drinks.
And like Iceland, Malta has its own Blue Lagoon—and it’s worth the day trip outside of Valletta to see it. The Blue Lagoon is on the island of Comino, just north of Malta. There are many tour operators offering trips, so take a guided cruise from Valletta and enjoy a day at sea. But unlike Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, the water in Malta’s lagoon is crystal-clear, the colour of ice. Boats anchored in the water look like they’re floating in air. It’s unreal. The only down side of the lagoon is that it can become very crowded with tourists and there is virtually no shade. But, you can always seek refuge from the hot sun in a boat!
Saint Petersburg, Russia
Known as the “Venice of the North”, Saint Petersburg is a majestic city largely modeled after the canal systems of Venice and Amsterdam—there are over 350 bridges on the Neva River, which meanders though the city. And each night of the summer some of these bridges open in a carefully orchestrated schedule to allow enormous shipping boats to pass through Saint Petersburg into the Baltic Sea—it’s quite a sight!
Founded by Tsar Peter the Great, Saint Petersburg was the capital of Imperial Russia and has a certain undeniable opulence. To truly experience the kind of power and opulence Saint Petersburg intends to project, start your trip in the Palace Square—the central square of the Russian Empire—where you’ll be surrounded by breathtaking baroque and neo-classical architecture. At the centre of the square stands the impressive Alexander Column, the tallest freestanding column in the world, erected to mark a Russian victory during the Napoleonic Wars. However, the star attraction in the square is the Winter Palace. The palace walls are a shade between azure blue and light green, and its façade is covered with shining white columns and hundreds of white-framed windows; like something from a fairytale. The palace was the official residence of the Russian monarchs, but today houses one of the most important galleries in the world: the Hermitage Museum.
If you’re looking for something romantic to do in Saint Petersburg, visit the Hermitage. Founded by Catherine the Great, the Hermitage has over 3 million works of art and the largest collection of paintings anywhere in the world. But bring some money with you—ticket prices are expensive (a guided tour can cost as much as $100) and foreigners pay almost quadruple what the locals do. However, it’s a small price to pay to see some of the world’s most treasured works. The collection includes paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, ancient artifacts, jewelry—you name it—from pre-historic times to the 21st Century. The scope of the collection is mind-blowing. Looking through the highlights, I’m seriously considering applying for a Russian tourist visa tomorrow just to visit the Hermitage. For example, take Leonardo da Vinci. It is estimated that only 10 to 15 of his original paintings survive today. The Hermitage has two of them: The Benois Madonna and the Madonna Litta—so cool! But I guess the Louvre has five of them—but Paris isn’t on my list—and who’s counting anyways?
Istanbul is unique: geographically it straddles both Europe and Asia, separated by the Bosporus—a straight of water between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. Culturally it is a city in a Muslim country, but one with a secular government. And historically it has been the centre of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires. It is a fascinating, chaotic city with much to offer. Consider booking your flight today!
Undeniably one of the most romantic things to do in the city is to hop on a ferry in the afternoon and cross the Bosporus to the Asian side of the city. Find a café by the water; get a cool drink and some lunch, and just people-watch. And wait. And wait some more. And once late afternoon hits, wait a little longer. When the sun starts getting low, but not setting, find your way back to a ferry and make your way back across to the European side. With any luck, the sky will start turning orange and the entire city in front of you will be silhouetted in black: Topkapi Palace, the minarets of the Blue Mosque and Haiga Sophia and Galata Tower’s iconic shape will rise to the sky, stretched across the horizon. It’s an amazing sight. By the time you’re back on the European side it will be dark—take the tram into Sultanahmet and wander the old city, and see the Blue Mosque and the Haiga Sophia illuminated against the night sky.
And for something different—with one of the best views from a restaurant—check out Istanbul Modern. I know it seems a little strange to go to a city like Istanbul and visit a modern and contemporary art museum—but you have to see this. The gallery itself is amazing. And when you’re finished looking at the exhibits, visit the restaurant. The gallery is built right beside the Bosporus, and the restaurant has an outdoor patio that practically hangs above the water. From the patio, you have an unobstructed view of the both Istanbul skylines: the Asian and European sides. It’s amazing.